April 5, 2017 / 5:58 PM / 5 months ago

Arkansas' hurried execution plan sparks concern for prison staff

AUSTIN, Texas, April 5 (Reuters) - The last time a U.S. state tried to execute two inmates on the same day, a poorly secured intravenous tube popped out, lethal injection chemicals sprayed in the death chamber and staff said the pressure of dual executions exposed flaws in the protocol.

That scenario in 2014 in Oklahoma, where executions are now on hold, has not stopped Arkansas from pursuing an unprecedented plan to put eight inmates to death in back-to-back lethal injections on four days this month.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson defends the urgency in his state, which has not held an execution in 12 years. The Republican governor said Arkansas must act quickly because one of the chemicals in its difficult-to-obtain lethal injection mix, the sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April.

Several former supervisors of state prisons across the country derided Arkansas' move as reckless. In interviews with Reuters, they said the accelerated schedule will heighten the risk of errors and the psychological toll on prison staff.

"Arkansas is stepping into an arena of deliberate indifference," said Frank Thompson, who oversaw two executions as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary from 1994 to 1998. "It increases the likelihood that mistakes will be made."

Most U.S. death penalty states abandoned holding multiple executions on the same day about two decades ago, in part because of the additional strain that put on victims' families, inmates and prison staff, experts said.

Nearly two dozen former corrections officials and administrators wrote to Hutchinson in late March urging him to abandon the plan. They said "a state's interest in justice and finality are not served by a botched execution."

The eight inmates scheduled to die over an 11-day period this month have filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt their executions, arguing the state's rush to the death chamber was irresponsible and unconstitutional.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, also a Republican, is prepared to fight in court to keep the executions on track.

"Attorney General Rutledge supports the death penalty and believes it is past time for the victims' families to see justice for the horrible murders of their loved ones," her office said in a statement.

DIMINISHED SIGNIFICANCE

Many victims' families have endured a years-long emotional roller coaster waiting for the condemned murderers to die.

But some capital punishment experts wondered whether the pace of lethal injections planned in Arkansas might diminish their significance, making them feel more like procedure rather than catharsis if shared by people affected by different murders.

"This diverts the focus from the victims and their families," said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School and a death penalty advocate. "This is a solemn ritual that we are doing. Its principal purpose is to reconnect the crime to the punishment."

After its botched dual execution, Oklahoma now wants to hold executions at least seven days apart, a state report said, in order to review protocols and allow staff to decompress.

Arkansas last carried out a double execution in 1999. The state has not released details of its plans for the lethal injections set for April 17, 20, 24 and 27 at the Cummins Unit prison in Grady, a town of about 430 people.

Dual executions can go smoothly, said former Texas officials who took part in successful back-to-back lethal injections about 20 years ago.

Prison staff dispatched separate teams to help the victims' family members through the evening, said Jim Willett, who served as warden from 1998 to 2001 at Texas Walls Unit, where the state's executions are held.

Even though there were more than 100 executions during Willett's time as warden, he said holding several in a short span did put a strain on him.

"You have emotional stuff happening within you sometimes that you don’t realize," he said. "It drags you down a little bit."

Allen Ault, a former commissioner of corrections departments in Georgia, Mississippi, and Colorado who oversaw several executions, said it is nearly impossible for prison staff to come away unscathed.

"These are normal human beings that are going to be affected dramatically by killing people," he said. "You can't get away from the psychological damage that it creates. To do eight of them is unimaginable." (Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Steve Barnes; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and James Dalgleish)

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